Everybody has to draw the line somewhere. For the Rev. Russell Moore, it appears to have happened over the way the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has handled racism and sexual abuse allegations within its ranks. Last month, he resigned as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the SBC’s public policy arm in Washington, D.C.
Commentators quickly praised Moore amid the controversy generated by his departure. Writing for The Atlantic, Peter Wehner, a prominent Christian writer and former George W. Bush speechwriter, portrayed Moore as a paragon of integrity compared to the unethical opposition he faced within the denomination. The Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker called Moore a “prophet in a time of darkness” who “has single-handedly brought the evangelical world to its knees.” She added that “his greatest sin seems to be that he often thinks, speaks and acts as a Christian.”
Moore deserves many of these accolades, but the hagiographers miss the real lesson of this morality tale. As Southern Baptists gather this week for their annual meeting in Nashville, it is important to see there is more to the story.
Parker claimed Moore’s critique of the SBC leadership represented “an unflinching indictment” of the country’s largest Protestant denomination. Wehner suggested Moore’s exit requires a reckoning with “the crises of American Christendom.” Such rhetoric depicts a righteous Christian servant driven out by, in Wehner’s words, “hypocritical religious leaders who abandon their calling and lead others astray.” That story may be true, yet it fails to capture the full dynamics at play, some of which Moore helped set into motion long ago.
As a Baptist pastor and journalist, I see these recent developments as the latest chapter in an ongoing saga. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Southern Baptist leaders purged suspected “moderates” and “liberals” from their seminaries, prominent pulpits, and other positions of institutional power. In the 2000s, the next generation of SBC leaders—including Moore—joined the battle. Looking back a couple decades casts a different shadow over what is unfolding today.
What if Moore’s story is a Shakespearean tragedy where the hero’s fall is caused by the hero’s own flaws? Perhaps this all should be understood not as an isolated case of denominational martyrdom but as a warning about the dangers of fundamentalism often at work in U.S. religion and politics.
Before Moore arrived as a Ph.D. student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, dramatic shifts had already occurred. After assuming its presidency in 1993, Albert Mohler transformed the school into a significantly more conservative institution by forcing out female professors, shuttering programs that conflicted with his ideology, and dismissing staff who challenged his leadership. Moore would serve under his mentor as a theology professor, dean of the school of theology, and eventually senior vice president for academic administration. During his tenure at Southern, Moore began wielding his pen like a mighty sword in writing for the SBC’s Baptist Press and other outlets.
A favorite target was the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed by Southern Baptist exiles who lamented the SBC’s rightward shift. Organizations that included both Southern and Cooperative Baptists—like the Baptist World Alliance and the New Baptist Covenant—also earned Moore’s scorn. I remember his writings at the time—which he later admitted were “pugnacious” and “quarrelsome”—as a minister who has spoken at CBF events and served on committees for the BWA and New Baptist Covenant. I’ve also been called a “liberal nitwit” by Mohler.
Understanding the attacks by Moore and other SBC leaders on their fellow Baptists requires grasping what sociologist Lester R. Kurtz called “the politics of heresy.” In this paradigm, the “heretic” is someone who is both near and remote. They are part of the faith but divergent from leadership in some way—a combination that renders them dangerous to leadership. True outsiders are less likely to persuade people to change beliefs relative to “deviant insiders” who are potential insurrectionists. Thus, these dangerous individuals must be pushed further away.
This, Kurtz explains, makes heresy “essentially a problem of political authority.” Someone inside the group challenging a dominant ideology poses a risk to the authority of those in charge. Labeling critics as “heretics” and then attacking them as such works to establish clear boundaries of what is acceptable, while also promoting solidarity by defining who “we” are in opposition to “them.”
In his earlier days, Moore followed these ritualistic patterns as he attacked “other” Baptists, especially those who seemed close to power or threatened to undermine the claims of SBC leadership. For example, in 2006, he labeled CBF “a parasitic movement,” employing a biological metaphor that implies a bloodsucking creature wreaking harm on the body (or, in this case, the body of Christ) that makes removal an imperative (which is why Moore later argued the “parasite” metaphor was inappropriate for Christians to use about immigrants). He further alleged that CBF members were corrupting to “churches founded on biblical authority and confessional orthodoxy.” That is, he described them as heretics without formally using the term.
Similarly, Moore joined SBC leaders in criticizing CBF for altering its purpose statement. Moore argued, “This represents the eclipse of Christ in the moderate Baptist movement … For years, CBF leaders and divinity schools have rejected the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.” The offending new mission statement? That CBF would “serve Christians and churches as they discover and fulfill their God-given mission.”
He also excoriated the Baptist World Alliance, a global network that brings together 241 unions in 126 countries and territories with 47 million believers in 169,000 churches, following the SBC’s decision to break ties with the fellowship. According to Moore, the BWA lacked “a defined orthodox Baptist witness in the world.” Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham, on the other hand, continued his support of the BWA and its global witness.
Additionally, Moore targeted his ire on the New Baptist Covenant, a convening by former President Jimmy Carter to unite Baptists in common cause across racial and denominational lines. With selective guilt-by-association tactics, Moore dismissed the gathering as “voodoo ecumenism” and an event for “the Baptist left.” He claimed it was driven by “Baptist liberals” while ignoring the presence of prominent conservative speakers—including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and leaders of state Southern Baptist organizations—and attendees from the SBC itself and other conservative Baptist bodies like the General Association of General Baptists.
All this attention and criticism by Moore to those outside his definition of Baptist “orthodoxy” followed the patterns laid out by Kurtz. Within religious groups, there are discursive struggles to wield power and define identity. Those socio-political forces allow some to gain dominance and enforce their ways, while those refusing to follow are punished via excommunication (or, in Baptist terms, “disfellowshipping”). Moore’s “pugnacious” attacks raised his prominence and opened opportunities in a denominational culture built on fighting for new boundary lines of orthodoxy.
Despite the remorse he has expressed about the tone of his early writings (some which remain on his own website), his efforts were effective in reinforcing an SBC system where power is accumulated through the ritualistic branding and casting out of heretics.
These rhetorical methods that Moore so deftly utilized in the past foreshadowed the attacks he faced in stewarding the ERLC. The very culture that rewarded Moore for attacking “other” Baptists turned on him with similar viciousness.
For instance, one of the primary aims of President Carter in organizing the New Baptist Covenant was confronting racism. Moore now complains that his own efforts on this front brought him unfair criticism within the SBC. Ironically, his previous diatribes against “Baptist liberals” are echoed in the report of an official SBC task force describing concerns about Moore’s ERLC having “a leftward political drift.” Mike Stone, a key member of that task force, is running against Mohler this week for SBC president.
Moore, previously the doctrinal defender of the SBC, has become a Baptist apostate, leaving not only his powerful perch but the denomination itself. While there is a temptation to preach an extended sermon about the biblical admonition that one will reap what they sow, no one deserves the self-described “psychological terror” Moore endured in recent years. Moreover, his moral consistency in opposition to Bill Clinton and Donald Trump remains a shining exception in a world of partisan hypocrisy. His advocacy for religious liberty for Muslims, for racial justice, for immigration reform that welcomes the stranger, and for victims of sexual abuse are all worthy of praise.
Moore’s fall is akin to the death of Victor Frankenstein, the scientist in Mary Shelley’s novel whose own errors in creating the Creature cause his fateful demise. The outcome was not deserved; readers are not led to applaud. It is a tragedy all around.
The consequences of this new tragedy extend beyond Moore to the SBC itself. Given the attacks he faced and a new round of “heresy” battles, it seems unlikely that the next ERLC head will take the same courageous stands on combating racism and eradicating sexual abuse within America’s largest Protestant denomination. That makes all of us worse off.
The lesson does not end there. This chapter in the life of the SBC serves as a broader warning sign about the dangers of fundamentalism in all its forms. When one’s power, authority, or position is derived from demarcating and defending orthodoxy, then singling out more heretics is always necessary. The status one holds depends on maintaining loyalties and passing purity tests.
In politics, former House Speaker John Boehner discovered this truism. He rose to power by channeling the energies of the Tea Party; those same forces became his undoing. Those within the GOP who aided and abetted the rise of former President Trump now face a similar crisis. The politics of fundamentalism necessitates finding new “heretics.”
A century ago, the liberal Baptist (and sometimes Presbyterian) pastor Henry Emerson Fosdick famously asked, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” Perhaps the better question now is: “Shall the fundamentalists accept their win?” Apparently not. The recent history of the Southern Baptist Convention makes clear that the fundamentalists have won time after time, yet they are determined to keep on fighting.
Perhaps Russell Moore realized the real heresy was sticking around for the next battle. The more faithful response—for the sake of one’s religious and political soul—is to walk away.
Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in political communication, is president and editor-in-chief of Word & Way. He is also the author of four books on religion and politics, including Sacramental Politics: Religious Worship as Political Action. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianKaylor.